The Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral Noman Bashir says the Pakistan Navy (PN) is on high alert and the PNS Mehran attack was not owed to a security lapse. He is right. It is possible, too, that Huckleberry Finn commanded the Corps D’Armée.
We are also told naval commandos reached the spot in three minutes. I am deeply impressed. They killed four out of possibly six attackers, two managing to extricate through a base, let’s not forget, which was highly secure before the intrusion and which, after the attack, had been further secured. [NB: this is where Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s statement about the attackers being Star Wars characters begins to make sense.]
I have a thought. If I were to choose someone to command an air defence (AD) battalion, I would opt for Admiral Bashir. Here’s why. His basic strategy would be to tell his gunners and SAM operators to try and shoot down the attack aircraft in a sortie. He will claim success after his battalion has shot down ten of the 14 aircraft, while the four managed to complete their mission.
Admiral Bashir, through his illustrious career, seems to have missed out on one basic principle of sound defence — mission denial. Corollary: I was bullshitting when I said I would put him in command of an AD battalion. I would not. I am not interested in shooting down enemy aircraft; my primary aim is to deny them their mission. The attackers carried the day because they accomplished their mission. And they did so because Aunts Agatha and Dahlia are commanding the PN and PNS Mehran respectively, thank you.
Ah! But I got one thing wrong. There indeed was no security lapse because that would presuppose security. So, perhaps the CNS is right. If the perimeter of the base is not secure; if those responsible for security have not even worked out likely approaches and secured them; if watchtowers are not being manned; if there is no system for alarms setting off if someone tampers with the concertina wires running over the walls of the base; if there are no searchlights; if there are no trip wires; if there is no concept of layered defence; if there is no local defence around the assets; if the assets have been positioned against all standard operating procedures, as one aviation enthusiast pointed out to me, without Hessian or sand bars when in the open, and are closely packed, then there was no lapse. It was a monumental screw up.
The attackers, on the other hand, were prepared, were highly trained, had reconnoitred the area, had the elements of surprise and speed on their side, knew their dedicated target, had worked out distances, the time it would take them to get from one to the other point, and knew they could take out the planes before they got cordoned off and into a firefight. They had planned it to a tee.
Which is why, by the time they got into a firefight with the naval and SSG commandos, they had already accomplished their mission, inflicting a loss of $72 million on the PN and Pakistan, upgrade costs of the P-3C Orion excluded. But more than that, they had deprived the PN of its primary force-multiplier platform. If I have to put together a commando platoon, I will most definitely hire these guys.
Now to the reasons. Fact 1: Naval aviation, as one senior Pakistan Air Force officer tells me, is lower down the pecking order within the service. Fact 2: the PN is the last in the pecking order within the military, getting according to some estimates, Rs1 for every Rs40 that go to the army. Go to the GHQ and then visit the Naval HQ. Or better still, visit the Air HQ and then go to the Naval HQ. You will see the difference. And it is not just the difference of infrastructure; the difference runs through everything, including human resource. It is the difference you see between the rich and the poor side of a family.
The PN is a badly neglected service. It is badly neglected because the army and also the air force manage to upstage the PN on all counts. This is not the space to write about the World War II concepts of warfare that dominate thinking here because the army dominates not just the military but also the country, but it must be noted that the PNS Mehran disaster is not without solid reasons. With peanuts one can only get monkeys.
Nor should the army and air force sit easy, though. There is now a clear pattern to this audacity and while they may be slightly better prepared, the enemy is no pushover. The terrorists are not just trying to create a media spectacle, though that is highly welcome from their perspective. There is a bigger motive in attacking the military and through that highlighting its inability to defend its assets.
The strategy fits in with another narrative: If bases and high-value assets are not secure, is there a guarantee that an attack like this cannot be mounted on Pakistan’s nuclear assets, and successfully? That question has been reverberating through the security circles for some years. It will now be revived again. Add to this the possibility of insider-outsider collusion that can make possible the breach of even high security and the narrative sticks out like a wart on a bald head.
Can something be done? Yes and no. Yes, if we are prepared to rise from our slumber and get our act together. No, if we continue with our inertia. Action requires that we develop a better-coordinated counter-terrorism strategy; improve intelligence; revamp our forces (the current configuration is unsuited to this war); develop speedier response mechanisms and prepare a list of all those places that have been, can and will be targeted. This requires getting into the mind of the adversary. This is the operational side.
On the political side, the state has to dominate the narrative which it has failed to do so far. Karachi should help clarify doubts in people’s minds. That is the harder part. It is moot to ask if Pakistan is prepared for that. As I was writing these lines a friend sent me a poem by E E Cummings, “as freedom is a breakfast food”. One line reads “or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair”. Need I say more?
Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2011.
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